Camera Rolls: 102:72-75
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Elsie Trimble , conducted by Blackside, Inc. in 1990, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
So, could you tell me how did the economy go up and down from World War—the beginning of World War I to the drought itself in 1930?
Now are we on the air?
Yeah, we're on the air.
Well, as I recall, they, during World War I, Lonoke had an air base here in the little town and because of the increased number of people living in the town the economy was greatly advantaged. And there were about a thousand teachers and students in the air base. It was called Ebbet's Field, and this was there all during World War I and that increased the economy by the increase of the population of the town. And that's the most important thing I remember pertaining to the economy of the town.
Now what, what happened in the, in the Twenties to the cotton industry, was it a good time for this area?
As I recall, it was a very good time. Prior to that there was a—the price of cotton dropped so terrifically that the economy was very poor. The cotton price was ten cents a pound or less, whereas now it's well over a dollar a pound. And I remember a song that was sung during that era that's, "Buy a bale of cotton, I bought mine. Buy a bale of cotton, it's good at anytime. Put it in the attic or put it on the floor. When you've got the money, buy one more." And the price of cotton, at that time you could buy a bale of cotton, 500 pounds for ten dollars. That was ten cents a pound. And, of course, in Lonoke County the basic crop of the southern part of the county was cotton. It was in the—this area is the rich bottom lands—they called them the bottoms—because of the overflow of the Arkansas River at different periods of time, which would bring a rich alluvial deposit over the land while the northern part of the county is hilly and the real crops planted there were very few. They based their economy on the growing of fruit, fruit trees, apple trees, peach trees, some pear trees, and even a few cherry trees. And during the spring and summer months they grew melons, cantaloupes, and watermelons, which they marketed and that helped the economy of the northern part of the county
Now there were a series of bank failures, can you describe that series of bank failures?
I do recall that with very vividly. The bank failures as I recall, were cause by the drought, and by the—the drought caused the crop failures and then the banks failed because the money they had loaned to the farmers to produce these crops could not be returned, so then the banks were without, could not pay their creditors or their depositors so we had a number of bank failures. Even in Lonoke town itself, we had three banks at that time, and each of these banks were closed due to failure. the first bank was the Bank of Lonoke, which closed. This bank was largely a family bank composed of the president of the bank, and his sons, and son-in-law, and relatives, and their other depositors were not a great number, it did not reach a very big height. And when the banks failed, they closed their doors voluntarily and returned to the depositors most of their money. And during the closing of the bank, eventually this bank was returned to all the depositors their full amount, 100% of the money. The oldest bank in Lonoke was the Bank of Central Arkansas, which had been in existence practically since the development of the town of Lonoke, and this bank had—
Bank of Central Arkansas.
I am very familiar with the closing of the banks because my husband was a lawyer, Thomas Clark Trimble III, was a lawyer and fortunately for us he was appointed to represent the banks during their failures. And so, back to the Bank of Central Arkansas, it was the second bank in Lonoke to close and their outstanding loans were a great many, and they did not fully recover these loans enough to pay their depositor's full amount of their money, but they did finally pay about 80% or something like that—I don't remember the exact amount—and then a few weeks later the third bank, the Lonoke County Bank, was forced to close its doors due to the depression or due to the lack of money. And this bank was the hardest hit because they had more farm loans out. As you perhaps know, the farming industry is usually based on loans they can get to pay the expenses of planting the crop and of harvesting the crop. These loans are usually paid back in the fall and reassessed to—another loan is made for the following year, for the crop for the following year. And so this bank, the Lonoke County Bank, was forced to close and eventually paid about sixty or seventy percent. Of course these bank closings affected the economy of the whole area very much. There was no money, and the crop failure caused there to be no food, so it was really a great depression.
Now, how did the—there was a furnishing system, how did the furnishing system work between the planters, the sharecroppers, and the tenants, how did this system, what was the cycle of this system?
Well, this cycle, now as far as the sharecroppers were concerned, this was a little bit earlier era. The sharecroppers were—by 1930 they were largely renters rather than sharecroppers. But I will remember the sharecroppers which—these sharecroppers were desperately poor, and they would crop a few acres with the landowner, say twenty or thirty acres, and in order to—there was no great big machinery then, they only made these crops with a mule or a horse, and a plow, and a rake, and a few small utensils like that or machinery like that. And the agreement was between the landowner and the sharecropper, and it was arranged that they would—a certain mercantile businesses in Lonoke, there are two that I remember particularly. McCrary and Company, and Eagles, Eagle and Company I suppose the name was. And the landowner would make this arrangement with the mercantile company or the, and they would be allowed, the sharecropper would be allowed so much per month. And they would come in each month and get the basic foods like flour, meal, and sugar, and possibly potatoes, and a few things like that. Each month they were allowed so much and then at the end of the year if the crop had been a success, they would be able to pay back the loan to the merchant, and also the landowner would have a little money rent. And sometimes, I know from my husband's own personal experience, sometimes there was not enough crop to pay off, to collect any rent from the sharecropper. These sharecroppers usually stayed only a year or two on that location. They thought that it would be better to move on to another farm the next year, which they did. I taught school in a school in south of Lonoke County in the area of Tomberlins. This was a four teacher school, I taught the first grade and I had an enrollment during the entire year of 110 students. This, this great number was caused by, at the first of the year practically every child that I had in school moved on to some other location and I had another complete group of children attending school. That shows the, how the sharecroppers lived at that time.
Now, it sounds like the sharecroppers and the tenants were, almost lived in a debt system, it's almost like they were always in debt.
They were, they were. These sharecroppers lived on a very meager home life. Some of them had one cow and a few chickens, which helped their economy. They would have milk and butter for their families, and the chickens, a few eggs, and other than that they—I know some landowners, in order to have better food for their sharecroppers' families, would have several acres of land prepared and require these sharecroppers to have a vegetable garden. Therefore they would have good food during the summer months. They planted potatoes, sweet—both sweet and Irish potatoes—and beans, and carrots, and tomatoes, and types of that vegetables that would help the food problem for the sharecroppers.
OK, let's cut for a second.
Your uncle I think it was, let's see, your uncle was—OK, hold on one second.
What was his role in taking care of the people of this area?
Well, he was very interested—
I'm sorry, could you, could you start up by saying, "My uncle, Senator Robinson..."?
Yes, my uncle, Senator Joe T. Robinson, as a young boy grew up in the area of the town of Lonoke, several miles from Lonoke, and as a young boy my father-in-law had occasion to visit with him. And when he was seventeen years old he came to Lonoke and did what they call "law apprenticing," he studied law just from the experiences in the office, and he lived in the backside of the office, had a little room in the backside of the office, and had his meals with the Trimble family. And that was the only law degree he had until—he was seventeen years old at this time and he stayed in the practice there until the firm was called Trimble and Robinson. And when he became kind of a successful lawyer, he went to the university, went to Law School at the University of Virginia and got his Doctor of Laws degree—
Excuse me one second, what I wanted—
I didn't quite get the question across, but—
My uncle Joe T. Robinson was a very powerful politician. He first was elected to Congress by this congressional area and then after a number of years as congressman he became senator. And he's the only person in the United States who was powerful enough. He was elected governor, but before he was even sworn in as governor, the office of the senator died at that time and Joe T. Robinson was appointed to be the senator and he was senator for many years. He never forgot Lonoke County, the town of Lonoke, and he was influential enough to cause the Ebbet's Field, the flying station here, to be built when many other places were attempting to get it because—
I wanted to ask you a little bit about how—what was his role in helping the people here deal with this drought?
Well, I know that he was very interested. He was instrumental in getting the Red Cross to come to the state or especially to the town of Lonoke, which I remember, Lonoke County, and through—at that time my brother was chairman of the North Lonoke County of the American Red Cross, and through Uncle Joe's influence, and my brother's work, the Red Cross soon came to the aid of the county and established a room here where they had commodities distributed to those in need. And Joe T. Robinson was very instrumental in getting the help all over the state to that extent.
You spoke in Congress on behalf of the drought-stricken areas—
I was wondering if, did he think the federal government should help out?
I don't recall that part of it. I just know that I don't believe that the federal government ever helped out at that time. I think the only help that was given into the state at large was through the Red Cross, and that was in order for the, to distribute foods to the very needy.
North Lonoke County Chapter.
And I was wondering, do you know what his philosophy was, what the philosophy of the Red Cross was, what they were doing?
I think their philosophy was to see that there was no physical suffering from lack of food to all the many people in the state who were actually hungry, and that was his philosophy was to help the needy.
The philosophy of the Red Cross, to help the needy.
OK, I'm sorry let's cut for a second because we have a plane.
—had people know what the agency is that we're talking about.
During this great depression, the American Red Cross was made aware of the great needs of Lonoke County, and after a short while they came to the aid of the hungry people with basic foods. They had a store room in Lonoke and it was decided who really needed the food and they could get these commodities once a week, I believe, or at intervals. And for many years the American Red Cross was very active in our community and did a great deal towards the suffering, to help heal the suffering in the community.
Now, were people, who were the people who were suffering, who needed this aid so much?
Well there were great many people who needed it. It was the class of people who had nothing in the way of money, they just lived, as the old saying is, "from hand to mouth." And many others due to the depression were without money, but this was a large number of the population of this area and these people who had been, we would say sharecroppers and those who rented the land, a few acres of the land from the landowners, were the ones who were in the direst needs. There may have been others who were without food.
That's great, that was wonderful.
I remember one incident that it might be interesting to tell—
Could you just start that again? Could you start that again, "I remember one incident..."?
I remember one incident or occasion when I was most, made most aware of the actual needs of the county. We had a very active PTA organization in our schools in Lonoke and one day at a meeting the teachers said we need help, that many of the children in the school come to school and they are listless, and innotative [sic] they cannot pay attention, and we think they've had very little breakfast, and they do not bring lunches to school, and it's just a very dire need for them to have some help. So a number of active members of the PTA voluntarily set up a small soup kitchen. Two members each day of a five day week would make a big pot of soup in their home and this soup was basically made from the essential contents, from essential things that are needed to make nourishing soup. The basis was a big number of pounds of roast—I mean of beef—and then we'd add tomatoes, and potatoes, or rice, in face of that type to make it very nourishing. These two women would take this to the school and the teachers decided on the number of children, on the particular children who needed this food, and they would have a nourishing meal once a day. And we kept this up until the Red Cross became active in the community and then the need was not so great so we stopped making the homemade soup because we felt that the parents had enough food that they could make a lunch for them to carry to school with them.
That was wonderful, that was wonderful, what a nice story. That's great. I didn't expect that. I had another question for you, could we just cut for a second?
-whether or not it was a hard time for you and how it affected, how the drought affected you and your husband personally?
Well it did have a great affect on our life. He was a very successful attorney—
I'm sorry, could you start out again and say "the drought" and "my husband"?
OK, the doubt—the drought did affect the life of our family—my husband, and our children, and me—to a certain extent. We never went hungry, but due to the lack of money in the area, his law practice diminished, and therefore we had very little money. But we did not go hungry and due to the fact that he was appointed to represent the banks in Lonoke County, he had an income from that or a salary from that and we survived on that. And basically his business was almost as good as usual.
Now when things got really hard here, during the drought, did you get scared?
No I don't think I did. I did realize the, how difficult it would be, but I don't think that I ever panicked at all. I faced the facts, but I don't think I ever was what you call scared.
I'd like to go back to something I asked you earlier. What was the cotton, what were the ups and downs in the cotton economy in the '20s?
Well it was very much, the economy was very much up and down due to the prices. If the cotton—whether there was a demand or good sales for the cotton, it was a successful year, the economy was well, well, was OK. But if the price was down, then everyone suffered from it. There was more or less a depression, a small depression, in the area.
Now the '20s is sort of characterized by a kind of post-WWI depression and then the '27 Flood did something to the economy. What was the effect of the '27 Flood?
Well the flood, that flood was caused from the, I mean—In this community, or in this section, was caused from the overflow of the Arkansas River, and it overflowed—
Did the flood of '27, did this area really ever recover from the flood?
Yes I think so. I think that it did, of course it took some years, and as I, when you asked the question a moment ago, I was thinking that this particular part of the county was not flooded and was not so hard hit as some of the other parts of the state, in especially the southern Lonoke County. And I do not remember there being any particular adverse circumstances in this part of the county.
All right, what's it like living without any cash?
Well, as I said a moment ago, we did not suffer from that for very long because my husband was appointed as the attorney for the banks and there was a little salary attached to that, and that was plenty to keep us from going hungry. But we could see the other people around who were not that fortunate did do without food to a certain extent.
Now, how did the drought affect the cycle of the year? How did it, did it affect, did it stop things—let's just cut for a second. I want to sort of—
—the drought on the life here, the life cycle, the normal furnishing cycle, the normal cycle of planting, can you tell me about that?
Well, I don't recall that it was really the cycle was stopped. I think that this flood was of such short duration—
Well actually I'm talking about the drought itself—
Oh the drought itself. Of course it lasted, I was thinking you meant the flood, the Arkansas River overflowing. The—I can't tell you exactly how long this, or how much delayed this cycle was. For a few years they—due to the economy they—the crops were not planted as they customarily had been, and therefore there was no reaping of the harvest in the fall, and—but it was only a year or so, a couple of years till they overcame the whole drought. As soon as the weather changed so that they could get back into the crops they did so. It was several years, but not too many. Two or three years at the most, three years at the most.
Do you remember Herbert Hoover's election in 1928?
I do remember it, but I don't remember any details.
Well, do you think that he was a good man for the job?
At the time I didn't.
Because you were a democrat, right?
Because I was a democrat.
[laughs] All right, I just wanted to—another thing I wanted to ask you about is, there were some people in England, Arkansas at the beginning of 1931 who got upset that they weren't getting food, the Red Cross forms didn't come in. Did you ever notice people getting upset about not getting enough food?
Well, I didn't notice it at the time, but since they've had welfare here, I've heard of it. But during the, during the actual period of the drought and the time the food came in to help the state, I knew very little about it except locally. I do remember to a certain extent that South Lonoke County complained that they were not getting the same help from the Red Cross that the North Lonoke County chapter was getting, but I think that was soon remedied. I don't recall that there was any great complaint concerning that.
All right, that's great, let's cut for a second.
The sharecroppers and, what I wanted to ask you was, how did that work and how did the planters and the, what was the relationship between the planter, the merchant, and the sharecropper?
Well, there had to be a relationship, a good relationship, to establish this type of thing. The planter arranged with the merchant or the storekeeper to furnish the supplies, and of course they kept a record of the sharecropper. And this relationship, as you say, was a triangle of a relationship and they, so far as I know, it was always on a friendly basis, as far as could be expected. Sometimes the sharecropper felt like he was not getting enough supplies, but that had all been prearranged and that was it.
Well, here's sort of my last question, the sharecroppers and the tenants were allowed just so much food—
—in the arrangement, they couldn't just get anything they wanted.
That's right, they certainly were not permitted to—
Why was that the practice?
Well, for an economical reason. If the sharecropper, perhaps if the sharecropper had been allowed to get everything he wanted, then indeed he would not be able to repay it in money in the fall, see? If he took advantage of this furnishing, it would far exceed his crop success, or the—
So it was sort of, it was sort of to protect the, from over-buying—
Over-extending, yes, over-extending themselves. Over-buying, and thereby that would effect the owner of the land. And then, if they had been advanced too much, there would be no income, the man's land would be worthless. There would have been no profit in it to him and that was how they, it was their income, their living.
Now, so could you just explain, the planter goes to the merchant, who gets for the sharecropper, who pays back in the fall. Could you just describe that?
The owner of the land goes to this merchant and makes arrangements that this merchant will furnish his sharecroppers, which were sometimes eight and ten or fifteen and twenty small plant, small farmers. and makes an arrangement. And he gives the names and the amount of food that he is to get depending on the size of his family, the number in the family. And then this sharecropper also understands this and agrees to the amount of food which is to be furnished. And so once a month, they do not extend it, or don't put out this food but once a month, because if they let them have it for a year they'd use it all in two months, so it had to be on a monthly basis so that they would be sure and have food for the next month and the next month and so on. And as you say, it was a circle. And the merchant was careful that he did not over extend to the sharecropper any amount of food or did not allow him to get anymore than the certain amount of food.
All right, that's good, that's good. We're basically done.
When Franklin Roosevelt was running against Herbert Hoover, how did you feel about that?
Well as you said a while ago, I'm a democrat. My father, and my husband, and all the people I knew have always had the theory of "Once a democrat, always a democrat," and basically, of course, we were for Franklin Delano Roosevelt from the very beginning. And although we had—the only thing we had against Herbert Hoover was that he was a republican
So you didn't mind Herbert Hoover, you thought he was OK.
I thought he was OK, as far as I know. Of course there were times I'm sure that we were critical of some of the actions that he took, but I don't recall any of them.
People in this area were very proud at that time and they didn't want to take help, most people.
No, that's true. People who had always been able to take care of themselves felt very reluctant to have an assist from the Red Cross. Of course there were others who were just the opposite, but the majority of people did feel very reluctant to take help from an organization or from anyone else.
It was a sort of neighbors help neighbors sort of thing.
OK, we're done.